The Most Exciting Block in Oakland
A group of artists with a vision and a sense of community turn a strip of blight into a river of creativity.
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“I’m not even sure we can all agree what gentrification means,” said Lisa Aurora Calderón, co-owner of Naming Gallery and the clothing store Tilde. “Did we bring life to this block and make it safer? We sure did. I don’t know how long I’ll keep the gallery. After a couple years, if it’s running well, I may walk away and turn it over to one of our interns from the local high school; teach them how to run a business. Is that gentrification if we teach others and then move on? I don’t know.”
“I’ve got a saying for this street,” added Calderón, a lifelong Oaklander. “This is good for all of us.”
Built in 1924, the three-story White Building has always been the centerpiece of 15th Street. In the heady years leading up the 2007 economic crash, the building was anchored by two large architecture firms and small retailers flourished in the area. But then the Great Recession hit and the small businesses shuttered, the big firms fled Oakland’s downtown, and the White Building fell into foreclosure.
Residents said the street resembled a set piece from an urban apocalypse movie with all of society’s urban ills on display. And for years, it stayed that way.
Uptown residents Saied Karamooz and his wife, Vida, walked past the historic 17-space building every Saturday on their way to the farmers’ market at Jack London Square. In 2012, the couple purchased the property with a singular mission: Rent the abandoned spaces to local artists rather than chain-store shops.
“We saw it as a way to have personality versus just retailers,” Saied Karamooz said. “An artist puts their art and soul into a product. It’s not just an ordinary product. It’s unique and an expression of themselves. It’s a very personal trade, and people are attracted to that personality, rather than just another consumer product. Artists are great at creating community.”
The few existing tenants stayed during the White Building renovation, and the first design change was to remove the iron bars that covered the street-level windows, Karamooz said. The couple refurbished the empty spaces from the basement (which now houses recording studios) to the top floor (where a chiropractic wellness center and an interior decorator opened offices). In between, it’s a mix of music-makers, photographers, and graphic designers.
“I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself,” said Liz Dobbins, D.C., who moved her wellness center, The Shine Center, from Piedmont Avenue. “The vision here—to create a place where creativity and passion are thriving to help bring about change—was too good to pass up.”
As the block filled in with more artists, the festive spirit followed. Too far from the reaches of Oakland’s Art Murmur in Uptown, which takes place on the first Fridays of every month, the 15th Street artists started “Second Saturdays” to show their wares. The crowds can get thick for a small city block, but the galleries are still accessible, and the party vibe still has a free-for-all, art school feel to it.
On a recent Second Saturday, artists body-painted nude women in one storefront, while another group of folks roasted a pig on the street. At the corner, neighborhood men casually played dominoes, just as they have for years.
“We don’t want to be a part of the carnival atmosphere that’s become First Fridays,” Calderón said. “It’s still more connected here, more community-based. The art and the community part is more important than the party part.”